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Department for Education

Part of Supplementary Estimate 2018-19 – in the House of Commons at 2:53 pm on 26th February 2019.

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Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee 2:53 pm, 26th February 2019

Let me put on record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate. For some newer Members of this House who may not realise this, thanks is also owed to the Procedure Committee. When I first arrived in Parliament, it was impossible to debate proper facts, figures and the Budget in the estimates debate without being ruled out of order. The Chair of the Procedure Committee and I decided that that was not good enough and we worked together to try to make sure that we could get these debates, which are now granted by the Backbench Business Committee. I warn the Minister that we are well prepared to go through the numbers in her budget. I am sure that, as an assiduous Minister, she is well prepared to take on board our concerns and to answer them. We have worked closely with the National Audit Office in preparing for today’s debate so that we can focus on the actual figures. I know the Minister is assiduous and will not try to give us smoke and mirrors in her answers. Hopefully, she will answer not in slogans, but in actual figures.

Today, I plan to discuss the overall schools budget. I know that the Chair of the Education Committee, Robert Halfon, will also pick up on some of these issues. Other colleagues will be highlighting concerns around the spending on academies and multi-academy trusts, which, of course, report directly to the Department, teacher recruitment and retention, potentially the student loan book sales—although I see that the Member concerned is held up in a Statutory Instrument Committee—funding for Ofsted and the inspection regime; further education and higher education; and early years and special educational needs. The Minister will have her work cut out to make sure that she is over the detail, as I am sure that she is.

One reason why we wanted this debate is that the Government often repeat that more money is going into schools than ever before. In March 2017—on one of many occasions—the Public Accounts Committee looked at the sustainability of school funding. This was at the point when schools were already implementing a Government set target of £3 billion of efficiency savings—£1.7 billion of which was through more efficient use of staff, and £1.3 billion through more efficient procurement.

The House would expect the Public Accounts Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing, to be absolutely on board with the idea that schools should be as efficient as they can be, certainly with regard to procurement—where schools buy their paper or their electricity from. It is quite right that schools should be encouraged and supported to find the money that can be put into frontline teaching. We were concerned, however, that the Department did not really have a grip on what the impact of those efficiency savings would be, particularly on staff. It did not know what the impact would be in the classrooms and on the teaching in schools that had already found those efficiency savings, or on the outcomes for children.

I am delighted to see that the Secretary of State is in his place. I know that he feels passionately about the need to make sure that children are getting everything that they can from our schools. It is therefore important and incumbent on him and his Department to make sure that, when they are setting the budget or implementing efficiency savings or cuts, they understand what the impact is on school attainment. While we are discussing the budget, we must understand that, in the end, the education budget is for that range of services provided through his Department to support young people in our country.

We concluded that the Government had not done a proper assessment. It was also concerning to hear from headteachers on the frontline about the challenge of squeezing out that money in certain schools, particularly in small schools where a small percentage saving is a big chunk and could mean losing a whole member of staff even if it is not equivalent to a whole member of staff’s salary.

During the general election of 2017, I was absolutely amazed and heartened by parents in my constituency and up and down the country—not political activists and not driven by political parties—talking about the impact in their child’s classrooms of the squeeze on school funding.